Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Teaching Music

My typical advice to a young aspiring musician is usually to find a good teacher. It certainly was a huge help to me. A couple of years after I decided to devote myself to the classical guitar I realized that there was no-one in my immediate surroundings that I could continue my studies with. I was commuting to Vancouver for weekly lessons and after several months my teacher suggested that I go to Spain and study with his teacher there. This was José Tomás in Alicante and I spent the better part of a year taking private lessons with him there. It made a huge difference in my playing and put me on a course to be a leading performer.

But let's dig into this a bit. The work I did with Tomás was critical in my reaching a fairly high level of accomplishment. But when I think back I can't remember a lot that he said. He would assign pieces for me to learn and would teach, basically, by playing passages from them. Occasionally he would play with me. But I don't recall him talking about many details. He would give a context and point a direction. When I think back I realize that other crucial elements were my commitment, the very fact that I would travel to Spain--I had never been out of Canada before, never been east of Saskatoon!--the fact that I would practice five hours a day, month after month, the sheer dedication to mastering the instrument. It also helped being part of a community of students, thirty or forty from all over the world, who were also dedicated to the instrument.

I remember a conversation with a flute-player who said that anyone who has mastered (no, it is never perfect mastery, of course) an instrument has at some point sat down and devoted all of their energies for a year or more to the single-minded pursuit of solving the technical problems. That is what I was doing in Spain and for a couple of years after. Most people are simply not going to go to that effort. Assuming you are, a good teacher can be a real help in, if nothing else, illustrating a standard or ideal. But he or she is not going to teach you how to play. You are going to do that yourself! I would sometimes perplex students by telling them that: "I can't teach you how to play guitar, only you can do that!"

Turning to composition, it is even more true. I was at a little cocktail party yesterday and fell into conversation with a visual artist, a women of fairly advanced years. She does a lot of teaching and so I casually mentioned that I don't think that you can teach how to compose music. Sure, you can teach skills and knowledge like orchestration (did you know, for example, that trombones can only glissando between certain notes?), notation, formal structures, genres, music history and theory. But all those things are peripheral. The one thing you cannot teach is how to compose a new piece of music. Schoenberg in his book on Fundamentals of Music Composition takes a pretty good stab at it, but what he is doing is showing how to imitate some features of the style of Beethoven. That may engage you in thinking "musically" but only insofar as it shares an aesthetic space with Viennese classicism. This is true of whatever compositional method you envision. There really isn't such a thing as a compositional "method." Every composer develops a particular methodology for particular pieces. It is the particularity that is important. Teaching is always about standard practices. You can teach certain things about, for example, guitar technique, or principles of orchestration, or sonata form.

But you cannot teach someone how to write sonata, symphony or quartet movements like Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven because they did not use a standard method. Outline any definition or description of sonata form and I can immediately point out multiple examples by those composers that fall completely outside that definition or description. Each composition is unique in important ways. Sure, some theorists and scholars can, long after the fact, point out some underlying principles that are often used, but that will get you very little way to being able to write a piece yourself in that style.

That blank piece of manuscript paper is terrifying to any composer because it represents the unknown. Every new composition, unless it is a mere rehash of older styles, is a journey into the unknown. It will involve the discovery or invention of some new idea or technique or principle. Or perhaps several of these. And each new idea will have consequences for the structure, the harmony, the rhythm. And you have to figure out what these consequences are and how to shape them into a structure.

I am writing all this because I just finished revising (meaning rewriting over half of it) my new piece Dark Dream for violin and guitar. The last thing I want to do is talk about what I actually did in the piece, so I am talking about teaching composition instead! No, I don't think you can teach anything important about composition. You can teach a lot about those peripherals, but that's all.

We are recording Dark Dream for violin and guitar and Chase for violin and piano in Toronto in early December and I will put up posts about that project as it happens.

I think I wrote Chase as a kind of encore for violin and piano. It was written very quickly for an upcoming concert of a couple of friends and later expanded. I had been listening to Hilary Hahn's lovely album of twenty-seven encores that she commissioned and I think this is what I would have written for her if I had been asked. Here is one of the pieces from the album, Mercy by Max Richter. It is rather more elegiac than most encores, but the album is full of unconventional encores.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Life and Options

I just read something that made me realize how much things have changed since I was a young person thinking about what route to pursue with my life. Here is the link: My Parents Give Me $28,000 a Year. Give it a read. Here are some quotes:
Not long ago, my wife, a composer, asked me if I would ever advise a student from a low-income family to pursue a career in the arts.
“What do you mean? Of course.”
“Really?”
“If that’s what they wanted to do, and they had talent–”
“But they don’t have money.”
“If a student were really passionate and talented, she’d figure out a way.” That’s always been something my parents told me. “Think about what you’d do if money were no object. And then work hard. You’ll find a way to make money.”
“Your parents give you $28,000 a year. They paid for your tuition. They made it possible for you to do what you’d do if money were no object—because money was no object for you.”
I got a little defensive at this point. 
With the arts, a student may be accepted to an arts program without a scholarship and find herself $200,000 in debt before realizing she isn’t going to be able to get a real paycheck with her arts degree—at least in the next decade. Sure, there are exceptions. But for every exception there are many more who are impoverished by their arts education or by not being able to take on more than part-time or temporary work as they struggle early in their careers.
There are a lot more details at the link, but this gives the general idea. Yes, a guaranteed $2,000 a month can really help you pursue a career in the arts. Well, it makes it possible to attempt a career, but with no guarantee of any success, of course. Perhaps it just enables you to be mediocre.

This got me thinking about what enabled me to pursue a career in music and that led to a comparison of that time with now. I was born in 1951 so I came of age in the late 60s when popular culture was in ferment and everything seemed to be changing rapidly. All the ordinary careers seemed extremely dull and the meagre rates of pay hardly seemed compensation. I became completely committed to a career in music when I discovered classical music. It cost little to attend university those days and the entrance requirements were not very hard. You could save a bit of money and pay for your own education, no need for a loan. Student loans were rare in those days (bear in mind that this was in Canada in the early 1970s). I even saved money and was able to spend a year studying music in Spain, which was really cheap back then. I did two degrees at McGill and did get a student loan. But it only amounted to around $2,000 so no big deal. It still took me a few years to pay off. I was lucky enough to get a job teaching in a conservatory as soon as I graduated. The pay was low, but adequate. So I was able to completely support myself, in a very modest way, for my entire career. No government grants.

But you know what?, as we discover from the above link, all is different now. Honestly, if getting an adequate education as an artist involves getting $200,000 in debt, or even a fraction of that, then you should really find a different career, because starting out with that hanging over your head is going to ruin your life.

The exception: those very, very few people who have an enormous amount of creativity and who really cannot do other than pursue some vocation or another. But they are pretty much in the same position as a Franciscan monk: you are essentially going to pursue a life devoted to the accomplishment of certain goals, irrespective of any material reward. In other words, you are basically taking a vow of poverty.

Jordan Peterson gives us the lowdown on the curse of creativity:


Elogio de la Danza, part 4

I have met Leo Brouwer a few times and played for him in a master class on two occasions. On one of them, I am pretty sure I played the Elogio. At this point in time, I barely recall anything that he said, except we did talk about my somewhat eccentric sitting position where I leaned into the guitar a lot. That is one thing I have modified over the years. In any case, here is a photo of me with Leo in a master class in Toronto in, I think, 1978:


Having established my bona fides (Heh!) let's get right into the rest of the Obstinato. The movement is basically a three-part form: ABA. We have covered the A section. The next page acts as a contrasting B section. After the "stacking" motif and a repetition of the motif with the tapping on the bridge, a new motif is introduced:


If this looks familiar, that is because it is using the intervals of the "stacking" motif: 4ths rising to 5ths, but with the addition of a minor 3rd. Interspersed with variations on this basic idea is a new idea, a rasgueado chord:


This too is not new as the chord is mostly the same as the one arpeggiated at the beginning of the movement:


Same notes, but with an added C. How to execute the rasgueado is indicated in the score. I suggest that you strum across the strings away from the bridge where there is less resistance--over the soundhole at least. No indication is given for how to do the golpe. I suggest that you do the eighth rest by touching the left hand side of your thumb to the strings to cut the sound, then do the i strum. Then slap the strings and body with the flat of your hand before coming back with the i again. It works for me. This kind of chord-plus-golpe is very common in popular Latin American music. These two ideas, the rising motif and the rasgueado, alternate with rhythmic variations then a final idea is introduced:


This sounds like a new idea, with a lot of chromatic decoration, ending with a tritone. After one last statement of the rasgueado chord, the motif is extended and varied, ending again with the tritone. And that's it for the B section. The last page simply repeats the beginning, ending with a chord built of 4ths and 5ths.

The Elogio de la Danza is quite a perfect piece in its way. It is brilliantly and creatively written for the guitar, nearly everything falling easily under the fingers. It has a number of unique textures and ideas. It is solidly founded on the folk music of Latin America and draws upon a number of traditional techniques. Finally, it has a harmonic palette that is quite original and gives the piece a unique sound. Except for the fact that this piece is fairly short, it corresponds to the place of the Rite of Spring in the output of Igor Stravinsky. Brouwer has even characterized the piece as a homage to Stravinsky's "ballets russes," that is, the ballets written by the young Stravinsky for Diaghilev's company and premiered in Paris that included The Firebird, Petrushka and the Rite. Immediately after this piece, Brouwer moved into a quite different idiom with his Espiral eterna, a piece inspired by tape loops, Stockhausen and Ligeti. If I get ambitious, I might do some posts on that piece as well.

Let's hear one final performance of the Elogio. This is a very clean and accurate performance by the Czech guitarist Vladimir Mikulka:


There is just one surprising omission: he does not do the second golpe together with the 6th string open that is one of the characteristic motifs in the Obstinato movement.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Mikulka does the staccato motif really well.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

It seems that nearly every cliché about art and artists gets to be tested by some study or other. This one is an examination of the idea that "my four-year-old can make something as good as "abstract" art!" The Wall Street Journal has the report: Could Your Child Really Paint That?
we told participants that in each pair one painting was by a famous abstract artist and the other by a child or animal. Their job was to pick the one by the artist. Guessing at random would yield a rate of 50% correct answers. As it turned out, the average score was 63%, which closely matches the average score obtained by people in the first study. We got the same results when the images were presented unpaired.
Of course, whether you consider this a vindication of abstract art or a blow to its pretensions depends on the beholder. While people could tell the difference between professional and child- or animal-made art at a rate significantly higher than guessing, they did still confuse them about a third of the time.
So, participants were able to notice differences between the random scrawlings of a child and the work of an established artist and do so at a rate slightly better than random? I don't think that indicates a huge aesthetic gulf between the two, do you?

* * *

It has often struck me just how terribly different the worlds of contemporary art and contemporary music are from each other. Here is an article on the materialism and marketing of the art world:
The lush new art-world documentary The Price of Everything shows us a system so waist-deep in hypermarketing and excess that it’s hard to look at art without being overcome by money, prices, auctions, art fairs, celebrities, well-known artists, and mega-collectors who fancy themselves conquistadors. 
The Price of Everything is a portrait of this damaged system — a place where big-ticket art made by only a handful of people — maybe 75 mostly male artists — appears in high-end galleries, auction houses, and art fairs before being sold off at astronomically inflated prices. Art and money have always slept together; they’re just doing it more profligately now than ever. The patter of the high-enders in Price is so imperious and spiteful that it’s no wonder the public — and many art-world insiders — have grown cynical about it all. I left the premiere feeling sick to my stomach and ashamed. 
Cut to Simon de Pury, the so-called “Mick Jagger of auctioneers” (who was once suspended zooming over a room full of rich bidders calling out bids) purring, “It’s important that good art be expensive.” This is a perfect and ridiculous echo of Sotheby’s former Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art, Tobias Meyer, who once chirped, “The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.” 
The thing is, much of the work on these trading floors is great. Most of it, however, is either middling, iffy, or bad.
Contemporary composers however, live in world singularly lacking in money. The choices are stark. You either find yourself an academic sinecure where you lie fallow in a protected environment your whole career with the occasional performance, or you live a life of perpetual struggle eking out the very rare commission (Philip Glass drove cab and worked as a plumber well into his forties), or you have a career outside of music and compose in your spare time like Charles Ives. Even a successful film composer like John Williams makes a good deal less than you would expect.

* * *

 Jessica Duchen has a piece by Jeremy Dibble on a composer I have never really gotten to know: Charles Villiers Stanford.
Born in Dublin in 1852, Charles Villiers Stanford was born into a community of brilliant Anglo-Irishmen in the mid-nineteenth century. A student of classics and an organ scholar at Cambridge, he was mentored by Sterndale Bennett and Joseph Joachim which led to further musical training in Leipzig and Berlin. An apprenticeship in the organ lofts of St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals in Dublin were also formatively important for his appointment as organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, a position he held from 1873 until 1892.
Stanford’s great originality as a composer of church music undoubtedly owes much to this time. But by the time he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in 1883, he was already the accomplished author of an opera performed in Hannover, two symphonies, chamber music, choral music and songs, and by 1888, when he became Professor of Music at Cambridge, he had composed two further operas, his ‘Irish’ Symphony Op. 28 (much admired by Hans Richter) and an oratorio for the 1885 Birmingham Festival.
The first performance of the entirely of his Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ Op. 173, will be Oct. 27. BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform the first complete performance of the Mass on 27 October at BBC Hoddinott Hall, conducted by Adrian Partington. It will also be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in early November.

* * *

Canadian composer Anthony Genge once told me about the viva voce exam required for his PhD in composition from Stony Brook University where he studied with Morton Feldman. He was required to answer one simple question: what was the influence of Claude Debussy on 20th century music? The more you know about music, and specifically the history of music in the 20th century, the larger and more daunting this question will loom! Alex Ross takes up this theme in his latest piece for the New Yorker: The Velvet Revolution of Claude Debussy.
It is best to start where Pierre Boulez said modern music was born: with the ethereal first notes of the orchestral tone poem “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun.’ ” Debussy wrote it between 1892 and 1894, in response to the famous poem by Mallarmé. The score begins with what looks like an uncertain doodle on the part of the composer. A solo flute slithers down from C-sharp to G-natural, then slithers back up; the same figure recurs; then there is a songful turn around the notes of the E-major triad. Yet, in the fourth bar, when more instruments enter—two oboes, two clarinets, a horn, and a rippling harp—they ignore the flute’s offering of E. Instead, they recline into a lovely chord of nowhere, a half-diminished seventh of the type that Wagner placed at the outset of “Tristan und Isolde.” This leads to a lush dominant seventh on B-flat, which ought to resolve to F, but doesn’t. Harmonies distant from one another intermingle in an open space. Most striking is the presence of silence. The B-flat harmonies are framed by bar-long voids. This is sound in repose, listening to its own echo.
As I mentioned somewhere else recently, this is the kind of thing Alex Ross does well: basic research into repertoire that is established and about which there is critical consensus.
Debussy had the prejudices typical of his time, and never thought too deeply about the cultures that he sampled. Nevertheless, he knew to look outside the classical sphere for nourishment. At the Paris Exposition of 1889, he heard a gamelan ensemble, which made Western harmonies sound to him like “empty phantoms of use to clever little children.”
This along with the intriguing information that Debussy chose a woodcut by Hokusai for the cover of the score to his orchestral score La Mer, twigs us to the fact that he was influenced by Asian aesthetics, something I was talking about just the other day.


Ross mentions a new anthology of scholarly papers, Debussy's Resonance. I just saw a copy of this on the desk of my old friend, Steven Huebner, when we met for lunch in Montreal recently. Steven was a contributor to the volume.

* * *

A somewhat bitter consolation for composers might be found in the news that writers are just as badly off: Canadian writers make on average just $9,380 a year, survey finds.
Canadian writers are making less money than ever — with incomes from writing dropping 78 per cent from 1998, according to a report released Monday by the Writers’ Union of Canada.
The numbers, accounting for inflation, have been undergoing a steady drop. According to the report, writers made $9,380 in 2017, down from $12,879 in 2014 — a 27 per cent drop in just three years. 
Similar findings were released in the U.K. by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) in June, which found that earnings for writers in that region fell from 12,300 pounds in 2005 to 10,500 pounds in 2017.
* * *

At least the Canadian Opera Company is in good health, financially: Canadian Opera Company stays in the black despite falling attendance.
According to the numbers released by the COC on Thursday, rising revenues from the bar, special events and the underground parking garage at the Four Seasons Centre have surpassed contributions from the box office. Last season, bar, special event and parking sales brought in $8.89 million.
The COC does not release comparative figures for previous years, but a look at past annual reports shows that box office revenues slipped from a high of $13.4 million for the 2009-10 season to $8.23 million for 2017-18. The number also represents a 13 per cent decline from 2016-17.
So, in terms of actual revenue, perhaps they should re-name the institution the "Canadian Opera Bar and Parking Garage?"

* * *

And finally, the kind of article I always find fascinating: The mysteries of the bow at the rue de Rome in Paris.
For musicians in Paris, the rue de Rome is a legendary place, at the same level as Tin Pan Alley or 42nd Street in New York. Sheet music shops and luthiers’ workshops are packed in like sardines. Amidst a delicate choreography of the musicians who are the street’s regular denizens, a few tourists wander from one shopfront to the next with jaws dropped, stopping here and there in front of a window, sometimes daring to push at a door to gawk in genuine wonderment at the violins and cellos stacked to the ceiling. Behind the instruments, a badly lit glass case is a less obvious draw: the bows. As any professional musician will tell you, these magic wands can change everything, from technical comfort to sound level, from warmth of timbre to the articulation of a sautillé. Some artists spend a lifetime searching for the rare pearl that will create their best chance to shine on stage. Others collect them by the dozen, each bow suited to some specific corner of the repertoire. It’s a place to inquire into these mysterious objects, whose secrets are unknown even to most musicians.
Be sure to keep reading as there is a fascinating discussion of bow re-hairing, one of those esoteric musical topics that I love to read about.

* * *

There are two obvious candidates for our envoi today, so let's have both. First the Requiem by Charles Stanford:


Then, of course, La Mer by Claude Debussy, one of the earliest pieces for orchestra I fell in love with in my journey from pop to classical:


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Elogio de la Danza, part 3

The second movement of this piece, the "Obstinato" is a wonderfully unique example of modern writing for guitar. Like Stravinsky, Brouwer has a physical approach to the instrument that leads to many original harmonies and textures. His roots in Cuban folk music make his music anything but abstract.

The second movement of this two-movement piece starts with a tricky staccato texture that is unique in the guitar repertoire:


There is no tempo marked in the score and my penciled in eighth note equal to 144 is just a suggestion. I may have gotten that from either the Cuban edition or from a recording--I simply don't recall. Pick your own tempo! This section uses a single chord-shape that moves around. What is tricky is how to create the staccato. It is really a combination of right hand and left. The left hand can stop the sound by releasing the pressure on the frets momentarily and the right hand helps by dropping back on the strings. The bass staccato is just with the thumb, of course. It seems odd at first, but once you get used to the technique it feels quite natural. Then next musical idea uses the same chord-shape, but fortissimo and marcato:


Don't cut these notes short as it makes for more of a contrast with the previous idea. I penciled in 2/4 over the 4/8 because this is really how the measure feels. I mentioned before how the notation of the meter is a bid odd in places and this is another example. I think Brouwer had this music in his fingers and ears first and then had to figure out how to notate it later--not an uncommon situation with composers. This section, with variations of the two basic ideas, repeats and the next section is marked Vivace:

Click to enlarge
Here we have perhaps the most distinctive original idea in the Elogio: the right hand strikes the bridge (I use the middle finger) followed by a left hand slur and then a simultaneous blow to the bridge combined with plucking the sixth string with the thumb. Tricky at first, but again, it comes to feel natural with practice. What I find the most difficult is adjusting the balance of the simultaneous golpe with plucking the sixth string. It is hard to get them evenly audible. Somewhere, again either in the Cuban edition or a recording of the composer, I have seen/heard an additional golpe with the open E at the beginning of the third measure. I don't do it myself, but I believe it would be an option here and similar places. The next motif is a transition to the "stacking" motif that ends the section and it involves symmetrical slurs across the fingerboard:


Pretty straightforward. The left hand index finger has two roles: first it opposes the torque from the third finger in order to make a clean slur, then it changes into the finger executing the slur to the open string. Slow practice will solve the problem, as always. I'm not going to quote the whole "stacking" motif as is goes over three lines of the score. Here is the basic idea:


Like a stretto in a fugue, the idea involves stacking up a single motif at higher pitches: descending 4ths and rising 5ths. These are intervals that have not been heard too often so far in the piece. This is combined with a rhythmic idea that squeezes the motif and then syncopates it. This same passage is later used to end the piece in a satisfactory manner.

Here is an interesting performance by Stephen Chau on a 1991 Friedrich guitar:


It is a tidy performance with fairly good attention to the dynamics. He agrees with me regarding the misprint on page 1. Unfortunately, the Obstinato feels a bit stiff and he simply does not do the staccatos in the upper voices, only in the bass!

Monday, October 22, 2018

Elogio de la Danza, part 2

Continuing on from last time, page two of this outstanding example of modern guitar repertoire. I have just been re-learning this piece after not having played it for decades. The amenability of guitar repertoire to memorization varies widely so a number of years ago I adopted the policy of only playing those pieces from memory that are well-suited to it. The Segovia repertoire of largely Spanish composers of the 20th century is ideal for performance from memory, as is the Latin American repertoire and a great deal of the 20th century repertoire from other countries. To this we can add the 19th century repertoire from Sor, Giuliani, Mertz, Tarrega and others. As you move outside this window, on either side, memorization becomes more problematic.

For example, some of the most avant-garde pieces are extremely difficult to memorize and others should not be memorized. Examples would include moment-form pieces like the one for alto flute and guitar I posted a few days ago, Night Rain by Anthony Genge. This is written in the form of "moments" or small cells for each instrument. For each movement you play each cell once. This is a piece that has to be read fresh for each performance. You should not play a fixed, memorized version. Another example is the Klavierstück XI by Stockhausen (or pieces by Morton Feldman and Earle Brown) in which a number of fragments or moments are distributed on a single page and the performer selects which one to play next so they can be heard in any order. Much early music is also difficult to memorize and it was usually played from tablature, not memorized.

I bring this up because I found the Elogio tricky to memorize in a couple of ways. First of all, the cellular structure makes it possible for you to interchange two very similar cells inadvertently. This is rectified just by more work, of course. A subtler problem is the meter. More and more I have the feeling that a lot of Elogio was composed on the instrument, improvised and then written down. I say this because I get the sense that the notated meter was imposed afterwards. Incidentally, when I saw Leo Brouwer perform this piece in a concert in Montreal in, I think it was, 1977, he played it from the music!

My first example is mm. 23 and 24 at the top of page 2:


Here we have the repeat of the cluster motif followed by a transitional measure that sets up the following section in a new tempo and with new material. M. 24 is an odd sort of measure, certainly not in 3/4 meter. He could have likely notated it as a measure of 1/4, rest, followed by a measure of 2/4. On the previous page there are a couple of 1/4 measures with rests.

Then we have the Allegro moderato that Brouwer plays with the dotted quarter equal to 96 though this is not marked in the score.


The notation uses some shorthand. The first measure, m. 25, is actually eighth notes which is indicated by the slash in the stem. Each note is played staccato, indicated by the staccato dots underneath the notehead. The next measure changes meter to 12/8. This whole section alternates between 9/8, 12/8 and 6/8 which I found a bit tricky to keep straight when I was memorizing it. The section is a variation on the opening of the piece with the repeated open Es and the arpeggiated chord. That is one of the hardest passages in the piece:


This is almost the same chord as at the beginning, but with the addition of an open G. This takes a LOT of slow practice to get clean, especially at a quick tempo. I think a slower tempo with more clarity is better than a quick tempo that is messy. Notice that he is asking for little crescendos along with everything else. This is one of my favorite passages:


Again, a variation on the basic material. I love the quadruplets going into the quintuplet followed by the plain eighths which are the equivalent of triplets as these are all divisions of the dotted quarter pulse. The last beat of the 9/8 measure is a really difficult (at this tempo) slur passage. You have to keep up the eight note subdivision while subdividing it into triplets meaning that this dotted quarter contains nine notes. I saw something rather comical at a guitar competition once. In one of the qualifying rounds a Japanese guitarist was playing the Elogio and when he got to the Allegro moderato he took a tempo that was so fast that one of the jury (who shall remain anonymous) stopped him and said, "this section is not possible at that tempo!" He looked at her quizzically and then played the passage in slurs flawlessly at the tempo. Guitar technique is always progressing and what was impossible for the juror's generation was not a problem for the young Japanese guitarist. Awkward moment, though. The solution here is, as always, slow careful practice. And never try to play faster than you can control.

This section incrementally becomes fragmented and then returns to the original tempo and material with variations. One thing you have to watch is the dynamics. A lot of guitarists ignore some of the dynamics, but they are all important and integral to the music. In m. 42, you should play sul tasto as well as piano and più lento:


And that's pretty much it for the first movement of the piece. The second movement, titled "Obstinato," we will take up next time.

Here is a good performance by Mexican guitarist Pablo Garibay that is very sensitive to timbral contrasts:


Saturday, October 20, 2018

A Study Guide to Leo Brouwer's Elogio de la Danza

I haven't done too many posts on the practical aspects of guitar-playing lately; this might fill the gap. I studied in Spain in the mid-70s just when Leo Brouwer was starting to become known as an outstanding composer for guitar in a modern idiom. Not a lot of players were learning his music yet and his important compositions, like Elogio de la Danza, were just beginning to be published. That piece was written in 1964 and was published by Schott in 1972. I purchased a copy from Union Musical Española in Madrid in 1974 and I still have that copy.


I first learned the piece in 1976 when I was a student at McGill University. I didn't study it when I was a student of José Tomás in Spain because it seemed too avant-garde at the time. All the students in the international group gathered in Alicante under his tutelage were studying the more conventional repertoire, especially pieces that he had either edited, like the Lute Suite No. 1 by Bach, or ones he or Segovia had edited and fingered by composers such as Moreno Torroba, Joaquin Rodrigo, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Tansman and so on. The most modernist music I recall playing for Tomás was a couple of studies by Stephen Dodgson. So I didn't take up the Elogio until I was an undergraduate at McGill. In fact, I recorded it and the first three movements of the Lute Suite No. 4 by Bach for Radio Canada (CBC) in 1977. Sadly, I don't have a copy of that recording as I would love to hear how I was approaching the piece back then. I had the opportunity on a couple of occasions, once in Montreal and once in Toronto, to play for Brouwer in a master class and I think I played this piece for him in one of them, probably in Montreal.

So that's the background, on to the music. The piece, while largely conventional from a technical point of view, has some interesting musical challenges. What I love about the piece, apart from its cellular sort of structure, is the unique timbres he wrests from the guitar and that starts with the very first harmony:


I have a couple of suggestions before we start. As the printed edition lacks measure numbers I suggest you mark them for reference. Put the measure number at the beginning of each line, counting carefully. All marks on the score, measure numbers, fingerings, etc. should be in pencil only, never pen. You will inevitably want to change them at some point!

For guitarists in the 70s this was a unique and remarkable new kind of sound--remember we had mostly developed our technique with endless scales, slurs and arpeggios and a lot of studies by Sor, Giuliani and Aguado. Our repertoire extended from Bach to Moreno Torroba with just a touch of Rodrigo. This was a whole other world of sound. This is actually pretty tricky to execute. That little grace-note arpeggio has to be handled just right or the notes won't balance. You have to get all four notes to come out evenly with the stress on the high C#. The shape of the chord is unusual so you have to be careful that each string vibrates freely. I use a little different fingering than the one given: piaia instead of pimpa, but you should use whatever gives you the best balance in the chord. You will notice that I have penciled in a different, slower, metronome marking. This comes from the Cuban edition of the music which I had access to at one point. This opening motif is repeated with rhythmic variation and then a new motif is introduced:


This is a written-out accelerando, so the poco accel. is really not necessary. Perhaps he added that to make sure you got the point. I always found the added indication distracting. It makes you tend to lose control in the third little group of notes! So I choose to understand this as meaning that you should not over-emphasize the different subdivisions, but execute the whole gesture smoothly. When you are learning the passage, it is good to be quite strict with the rhythm at first, feel each subdivision. You will notice "f g g flat" penciled in. This is because I think that there is a misprint here. The motif, which appears later on, is always tone, semitone, moving from the first through the second and third strings. F A flat, G is minor third, semitone and does not fit. The whole piece uses symmetrical patterns moving across strings, so I am pretty sure this is a misprint. Play F G G flat instead. One other thing, don't let the low B flat ring, but cut it off as soon as you play the A.

The next new idea, along with a tempo change not indicated in the Schott edition comes in mm 7:

Click to enlarge

The previous section ends with those open Bs, first as harmonics and then the open string. This echoes the open low Es of the beginning and transitions us into the next section. There is no tempo change in the Schott edition, but the Cuban edition says piu mosso with the dotted quarter at 84. This is correct, of course. For Brouwer things like dynamics and timbre are structural so you need to make sudden, crisp contrasts between the f sub and the p stacc. That means "suddenly forte," that is, without any foreshadowing, and he also asks for metálico, meaning with a very bright sound achieved by plucking near the bridge, and then suddenly piano and staccato. The kind of staccato used here is what I call "thumb staccato" which you execute by using the flesh of your thumb to damp the sound as soon as you pluck. This is contrasted with the accented notes played forte which are played just with the nail, quite forcefully.

The sextuplet is a bit tricky so it and all the fast passages need to be practiced many times very slowly and very evenly. If you click on the example you should be able to read my penciled in fingerings. The second time you play the sextuplet, the printed fingering asks you to suddenly shift to third position for the last C in the group. Don't do it! It is needlessly difficult. Instead shift to third position after the F# on the next line. That gives you lots of time to make the shift instead of while you are playing that tricky sextuplet. Next the rubato sextuplet from before is played twice, the second time sul tasto, which means you pluck over the fingerboard to get a very dark sound. Remember, these timbral contrasts are structural, so make them very stark.

The next motif recalls the rhythm of measure 4 with a syncopated figure followed by a triplet. This time, however, it is with a tone cluster:


The notation is just a tad deceptive. This kind of motif Brouwer always wants to ring: laissez vibrar. That little breath mark ordinarily means you would cut the sound, but not in his music. He generally likes chords to ring as long as possible. This motif is then repeated with the stopped notes a semitone higher, heightening the tension and preparing for the next section, the Allegro moderato. Let's stop here and continue with that section in a future post.

For an envoi, let's listen to a performance of the piece. This is Mabel Millán playing in a competition in Bilbao:


There are a few problems with the performance. She simply plays the notes of the grace-note arpeggio across the strings instead of the order as written. She plays the accelerating motif with the printed notes, which I am pretty sure are a misprint. She ignores the staccato and tenuto marks on the repeated G notes in mm 7. Her sextuplet is a bit sloppy, but she uses the fingering I suggest for the shift to third position. Anyway, enough nit-picking!

Friday, October 19, 2018

Friday Miscellanea



we are living in.

* * *

Here is another 9/8, divided 12 12 12 123 so you get a sort-of hemiola in every bar:


* * *

Most of the time I am leery of those muckraking revelations that uncover the seamy side of artists, but I suppose there are times when it is appropriate. Norman Lebrecht has come into possession of a letter from Artur Schnabel, the Austrian (and Jewish) pianist, that rather clouds the image of the great German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler:
This letter, from an impeccable source with no axe to grind, is a massive iconoclasm. It shatters the long-held image of Wilhelm Furtwängler as a man who did his best for music in terrible times, and replaces it with a man in denial of his central role in the Nazi cultural myth, a willing executioner of music for the greater glory of the regime.
He had a good time in the Reich, he admits. Any pity he feels is not for Hitler’s victims but, first, for himself, and second for Germans now living under Allied occupation. Furtwängler, seen through Schnabel’s eyes, is a shoddy hypocrite who, like Germans as a whole, is unwilling to admit a scintilla of guilt for his complicity with Hitler. He is not a saviour of great art. He’s just a very slippery character.
* * *

 At Slipped Disc we hear about a something very unfair happening at YouTube:
Like many musicians, I have a YouTube channel. I upload videos, mostly of my own playing. I would never upload something played by someone else and try to pass it for mine. Unfortunately, those kinds of people do exist, we know, but I never have, and never will.
We know that YouTube, like Facebook, has a very dumb software that “recognizes” the music played, to see if one is infringing on copyrights. We know this software is dumb because, while it recognizes the piece, it does not distinguish performances. That’s why, often, a Facebook live broadcast gets stopped, or a claim is put on a YouTube video by mistake. Usually, one appeals, and the claim is removed.
However, for three of my own videos (Mozart Sonata K332, Beethoven Emperor, and Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto) Sony Music Entertainment claims I am using other people’s performances. In other words, they claim I used commercial recordings. That is absolutely false, of course. 
Three copyright strikes means your account is terminated. It is all completely unfair, and it is crooked, too. SME is monetizing my video, saying that they own the rights to it, when they do NOT.
This is outrageous, of course, and there are lots of other examples of very unfair treatment of individuals by the tech giants. I suspect there will be legislation in the offing treating them as public utilities which is what they have become.

* * *

I wonder if Alex Ross has been reading my blog, where I occasionally put up a post titled "The Case of ......" in which I attempt to evaluate the aesthetic value of this or that composer. His latest at The New Yorker he links to with the title "The Meyerbeer Case" though the actual article, likely titled by an editor, is The Dark Prophetic Vision of Giacomo Meyerbeer (which rather reminds me of Kanye West's album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).
The vanishing of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s once inescapable grand opera “Les Huguenots” is a mystery of musical history—almost a crime in need of solving. A panoramic tragedy of religious violence, “Huguenots” had its première at the Opéra de Paris, in 1836, and received well over a thousand performances there in the century that followed. Berlioz, Verdi, and Liszt hailed the opera as a masterpiece. Heinrich Heine, not given to fulsome praise, compared it to a “Gothic cathedral, whose slender columns and colossal dome seem to have been raised by the bold hand of a giant.” By the middle of the twentieth century, though, “Huguenots” had all but disappeared. The same fate befell the remainder of Meyerbeer’s output and dozens of other works in the grand-opera genre. Most of them are destined to remain historical curiosities, but “Huguenots” requires no special pleading. It is a juggernaut of musical-dramatic invention, and its climactic scenes, depicting the massacre of thousands of Huguenot Protestants by Catholic forces on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, can still inspire terror. A new production of “Huguenots” at the Opéra—the first in eighty-two years—has affirmed the work’s elemental power.
I often complain about Ross' quirks and biases, but this is the kind of thing he does really well and you should read the whole thing.

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Here is something quite unusual: a composer talking about how he works. Nico Muhly in the London Review of Books.
I avoid reading accounts of other composers’ ways of working. I’ve only ever been disappointed by stories of their abusive and antagonistic relationships with the people they’re close to, or, in the case of historical figures, wild speculation about their mental states or marital problems or excessive drinking. When I talk to my colleagues, I am of course happy to hear about their sex dramas and squabbles with the landlord, but what I really want is shop talk: what kinds of pencil are you using? How are you finding this particular piece of software? Do you watch the news while you work? I find these details telling.
For me, every project has three clearly defined phases: the scheming and planning; the writing of actual notes; the editing. The planning process almost entirely excludes, by design, notes and rhythms. When I was a twenty-year-old student at Juilliard, I constantly had hundreds of tiny, brilliant ideas, each lasting about five seconds, and instead of learning to use them, I’d just throw them at the wall in some order and the result would be a sparkling and disorganised mess, a free-form string of disjointed but attractive thoughts. My teacher set out to fix this problem, and taught me a method of planning I still use to this day. With every piece, no matter its forces or length, the first thing I do is to map out its itinerary, from the simplest, bird’s-eye view to more detailed questions: what are the textures and lines that form the piece’s musical economy? Does it develop linearly, or vertically? Are there moments of dense saturation – the whole orchestra playing at once – and are those offset by moments of zoomed-in simplicity: a single flute, or a single viola pitted against the timpani, yards and yards away?
This is one of those accounts that seems to be telling you a great deal while actually revealing little, isn't it?

* * * 

What better envoi than Marais' Tombeau pour Mr. de Lully?


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Brief Musings

There are several reasons that blogging has been so light recently and they include other demands on my time and the possibility that I may be running out of things to talk about. This blog has never been focussed on current events and newsworthy items so that is not something I can fall back on. Instead I have wanted to offer posts on less topical things like education and philosophy. Those posts take a lot more preparation, though, so again, the fact that I have less time cuts down on possible posting. I have two series of posts that are currently on hold that I intend to take up as soon as I have the time. These are the posts on Sofia Gubaidulina and Leo Brouwer. Both of those series require quite a bit of research.

Another reason that is keeping me from posting is that I am working on what I hope is a fairly significant piece and there is an upcoming deadline. I am scheduled to supervise the recording of the piece and another one written a few years ago in Toronto in early December with highly professional players and engineers. While I am working on the piece I am strongly inclined not to talk about it! I think this is pretty common with creative work. You never want to talk about what you are doing while you are doing it. I'm not sure why this is, but creation seems to involve turning your attention in a certain direction or opening your perceptions in a certain way and talking about it tends to interfere in some way. In any case, after the project is completed, I am sure I will have lots to say.

* * *

I have been reading a book recommended by a commentator, The Hall of Uselessness, a collection of essays by Simon Leys, the nom de plume of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian-Australian essayist and critic with a particular interest in China.


Not available on Kindle, unfortunately, you will have to order a print copy. But the book is well-worth reading, I think. I realized something about my own aesthetic makeup from the essay "Poetry and Painting: Aspects of Chinese Classical Aesthetics." When I was quite young, just out of high school and before I went to university, I made two aesthetic discoveries. The first was musical in the person of J. S. Bach (and other classical composers, but Bach was the main one) and the second was of Asian art in the form of ukiyo-e, Japanese woodcuts. From there I discovered the arts of Japan and China more generally which over the years included Chinese poetry and painting, haiku, Zen Buddhism, Japanese, Chinese and Javanese music and so on. Here is a passage from the essay that resonates:
Probably the best way to examine this theme of "communion with the universe" in Chinese art is still to study the central role played by the concept of qi in the aesthetic theories.
Qi is sometimes translated as "spirit," which could be misleading unless one remains aware that the Chinese have a materialistic notion of spirit and a spiritualistic notion of matter. Far from being antithetical, the two elements indissolubly permeate each other. A good example of this conception can be found, for instance, in the well-known "Hymn of the Righteous Qi," written in the thirteenth century by Wen Tianxiang... Whereas a Western mind would wish to distinguish between different realms, for the Chinese classical mentality, one single concept of qi can simultaneously cover physiological realities and abstract principles, material elements and spiritual forces...
The literal meaning of qi is "breath" or "energy"... In a broader and deeper sense, it describes the vital impulse, the inner dynamism of cosmic creation. For an artist, the most important task is to collect this energy within the macrocosmos that surrounds him, and to inject it into the microcosmos of his own work.
Without realizing it, this is exactly what I have always tried to do in my compositions, directly or indirectly. Whereas in Western aesthetics, art is essentially an illusion that seeks to imitate Nature, in China:
 ...for a Chinese painter, the measure of success was not determined by his ability to fake reality but by his capacity to summon reality... The relation between the painted landscape and the natural landscape is not based on imitation or representation; painting is not a symbol of the world, but proof of its actual presence.
Occasionally Western artists have had the same preception:
Picasso put it more concisely, but no less explicitly: "The question is not to imitate nature, but to work like it."
How does this work, practically?
A painter should aim to turn his painting into a sort of energy field where forms constitute as many poles between which tensions are created; these tensions--invisible, yet active--ensure the unity and vital dynamism of the composition.
Negative space is an important component:
Earlier, we pointed out that in Chinese philosophy the Absolute only manifests itself "in hollow": only its absence can be circumscribed... Not only can the message reach its destination without having to be fully spelled out, but it is precisely because it is not fully spelled out that it can reach its destination. In this sense, the "blanks" in painting, the silences in poetry and music are active elements that bring a work to life.
The poet Tao Yuanming (372 - 427) used to carry everywhere with him a zither without strings, on which he played mute music: "I only seek the meaning that lies at the heart of the zither. Why strain myself to produce sounds on the strings?"
The case of John Cage's 4'33 will come immediately to mind. Cage was deeply influenced by Chinese and Japanese aesthetic concepts. I recommend reading all of Leys' essay. My quotes are from pages 342 through 349.

I spent my formative years largely on Vancouver Island where I first encountered the art and aesthetics of China and Japan. Apart from ukiyo-e, another important influence in those years was A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-Tsit Chan. I lost the book years ago but recently replaced it. I was delighted that it was still in print.


* * *

Like John Cage, I grew up on the Pacific coast of North America, where the influence of Asia is the strongest. An old friend of mine, composer Anthony Genge, is also from the Pacific coast, Vancouver, and is also very influenced by that aesthetic. His two composition teachers were Morton Feldman and Toru Takemitsu. Feldman is probably the most "eastern" aesthetically, after Cage, of that whole group of composers who worked in New York. The influence of Chinese and Japanese aesthetics is so deep that I am usually quite unaware of it, but a couple of years ago a violinist that I play with quite regularly pointed out that my music has an Asian feel. She is Chinese-American and lives in California. Someone else might not have noticed.

So there you have it, a long post about why I haven't been doing long posts recently. The perfect envoi to this is a piece by Anthony Genge that has been a significant influence on my music. The piece is Night Rain, for flute and guitar. The performers are myself, guitar, and Richard Volet, alto flute.


UPDATE: I meant to include an example of ukiyo-e in this post and forgot. Here is a woodcut by Hiroshige, a great 19th century master:

Click to enlarge
You will notice that the center of the print is empty.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Two Thomases

This post has nothing directly about music, but my mandate, "classical music, popular culture, philosophy and anything else that catches my fancy..." is pretty broad. I'm titling it "Two Thomases" because both names came up in a dinner party last night. There was an old British tv comedy called "The Two Ronnies."

The first Thomas is Thomas Sowell who recently retired after a long career as an economist, writer and educator. The photo accompanying the Wikipedia article is very, very old, so:


He has a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, which means he is loosely in the "Chicago School of Economics" as opposed to being a Keynesian or, you know, a socialist. He is eighty-eight years old and just recently retired, though he is still a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has written a host of books of which perhaps the most generally useful is his Basic Economics, which is as clear-headed and sensible discussion as one could hope to find. In the new edition of the work, there are some new chapters one of which talks about why there are such great economic inequalities in the world:
Any study of international economic activities inevitably encounters the fact of vast differences among nations in their incomes and wealth. In the early nineteenth century, for example, there were four Balkan countries where the average income per capita was only one-fourth that in the industrialized countries of Western Europe.{ 847} Two centuries later, there were still economic differences of a similar magnitude between the countries of Western Europe and various countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Albania, Moldova, Ukraine and Kosovo were each less than one-fourth of the per capita GDP of Holland, Switzerland, or Denmark— and less than one-fifth of the per capita GDP of Norway.{ 848} Similar disparities are common in Asia, where the per capita GDP of China is less than one-fourth that of Japan,{ 849} while that of India is barely more than ten percent of the per capita GDP of Japan. The per capita GDP of sub-Saharan Africa is less than ten percent of the per capita GDP of the nations of the Euro zone.{ 850} Many find such disparities both puzzling and troubling, especially when contemplating the fate of people born in such dire poverty that their chances of a fulfilling life seem very remote. Among the many explanations that have been offered for this painful situation, there are some that are more emotionally satisfying or politically popular than others. But a more fundamental question might be: Was there ever any realistic chance that the nations of the world would have had similar prospects of economic development? Innumerable factors go into economic development. For all the possible combinations and permutations of these factors to work out in such a way as to produce even approximately equal results for all countries around the world would be a staggering coincidence. We can, however, examine some of these factors, in order to get some insight into some of the causes of these differences. 
Sowell, Thomas. Basic Economics (pp. 527-528). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
The book has no graphs and no highly technical discussion, just a good introduction to economics from a common sense viewpoint. Sowell has written a lot of other books on cultural and social issues as well so you might have a look around.

The other Thomas is an utterly different kind of person. Thomas Merton I became acquainted with a few decades ago, partly through the influence of a religious friend of mine.


I got the idea for writing this post because I was surprised to find that no-one at my dinner party had ever heard of Thomas Merton--and they were all, to some extent, religious people. If you read the Wikipedia article, as you should, you will find that Merton was one of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century. In 1948 he published a memoir of his path to the faith, The Seven Storey Mountain. I found it a fascinating read, though it that was long ago and I should probably re-read it. Merton spent most of his life as a Trappist monk whose vocation was, basically, to write books. Ones that I read and found interesting include The Wisdom of the Desert in which he delves into the Christian desert fathers of the 4th century and finds some interesting parallels with Zen masters!

I hope you take a bit of time and look into either or both of this writers as they are likely both worth the effort.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Wikipedia seems to have articles on every subject imaginable: List of entertainers who died during a performance. Of particular interest to us are Louis Vierne, a French organist and composer, who died while performing his 1750th organ recital on June 2, 1937, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris; concert pianist Simon Barere who died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Carnegie Hall while playing Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor. Lots of others, but skipping a few we might mention opera singer Richard Versalle who died on stage at the Metropolitan Opera during the company's première performance of The Makropulos Case when he suffered a heart attack while standing on a sliding ladder attached to a file cabinet. He was stricken after singing the line, "Too bad you can live only so long." Ok, that was a bit macabre!

* * *

Here is a luthier who is building violins according to the fine old traditions of the Cremona masters of the 17th and 18th centuries, and yes, he lives in Cremona.
As Lucas talks on excitedly, I learn that different violin makers have very different opinions on the amount of arching the should give to a particular violin body. Factories have violin bodies coming off the machines at a tremendous rate, each one with exactly the same degree of arching, but if that is the only measurement they take, Lucas asserts that only one in a thousand violins they make will sound good because every piece of wood is of different density. As a trained chemical engineer as well as a luthier, Lucas measures their density before calculating the correct degree of arching for each body. He  explains that arching has always been very important – from the time of Amati whose violins were crafted to create a beautiful round, warm sound that didn't project hugely (with archings up to 20mm at their higher point). Nowadays some makers opt for a relatively low level of arching (up to 14 mm on the back) to gain some power on their violins, but this loses some richness.
The whole article is fascinating, so go read the whole thing.

* * *

Here is a well-written account of music in Mexico from the perspective of an orchestral player:
We played a variety of war-horses and obscure music, all of it good – a breadth that I would never span again in my career. Bruckner Masses and symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites, Beethoven rarities like Ruins of Athens, anything by Turina or Albeniz, and works by Debussy that I never heard again. Early forgotten symphonies of Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland’s less than greatest hits. Anything by Strauss, either Richard or uncle Johann. Soloists would get edged out by muscular programing, such as an evening of Sibelius’s 2nd and Shostakovich’s 5th followed by Wagner’s Rienzi Overture as an encore. We even recorded all of Verdi’s and Rossini’s overtures, offering me an education in just how many of those gems there are. Our audiences ate it all up. And Mexico has its own classical music canon revolving around Revueltas and Chavez, the beauty of which should not be lost on artistic planners.
We reached the greatest number of people with our outdoor concerts – many thousands in one fell swoop. I remember vividly playing in a town zócalo and seeing the Indian women with babies wrapped about them quietly contemplating Beethoven’s 7th. During another concert in a distant village one Sunday after Mass, a mysterious, mustachioed man rode into the dusty church on his horse to figure out what was going on with Tchaikovsky’s 4th. The locals were drawn to classical music for what it most simply is: a spectacle of magnificence.
* * *

The Art Newspaper has an article on the problem of value in art: The all-powerful market is sounding the death knell for connoisseurship.
For centuries, the dominant narrative of art history was written to affirm the supremacy of European artistic achievements, produced almost exclusively by white men. After the Second World War the centre of the art world moved to the US, specifically, to New York. The narrative, accordingly, was adapted to position New York as heir to a Modernist legacy that had originated in Paris.
Cultural hegemony followed global political hegemony.
Even as the Modernist narrative was being written, however, some art historians recognised that it was inaccurate, too focused on France, at the expense of countries such as Austria, Germany, Russia and Italy, which had been sidelined by 20th-century events.
Many artists were left out entirely: women, socioeconomic outliers, outside the Western orbit and anyone non-white. Art historians are today making valiant efforts to correct these mistakes, a goal most effectively achieved through monographs or in-depth studies into the previously overlooked.
While this correction is laudable, it unfortunately often seems to go hand-in-hand with a suspension of critical judgment.
In the past few decades, academia has largely abandoned traditional connoisseurship because it was too often tied to “great man” narratives.
Over the same period professional art criticism has been eclipsed by a journalistic preoccupation with glamour, scandal and money.
While the art world was never entirely free from market forces, these are now essentially the sole determinant of value. People need narratives to make sense of culture and collectors require a mechanism to assess quality.
By default, today’s dominant narratives are being written by dealers and auctioneers.
That is a nicely concise statement of a problem we have discussed here at length. My response, as usual, is that this is what happens when you eliminate aesthetics and aesthetic judgement. A few quibbles: the so-called "dominant narrative" of art history was not so much written to affirm the superiority of white men as it was to acknowledge the source and nature of aesthetic quality. Turning it into a zero-sum game turning on race and gender was the contribution of the cultural Marxists of our time. If we plug in some specifics, I think this becomes clear. Does a history of Baroque music, for example, spend a lot of time on Bach, Vivaldi and Rameau because they were white men? Or because they wrote the most powerful and expressive music of the time? So as soon as that assumption is revealed for the falsehood that it is, the rest rather falls apart.

* * *

A former prominent neurological researcher at Yale and New York universities will not face prison for stealing research funds, but a judge said he must play piano for indigent elderly people in Connecticut to make amends.
The unusual sentence for Alexander Neumeister was handed out Wednesday by the US district judge Analisa Torres.
Neumeister must play the piano an hour at least twice weekly for the next few months at group facilities in Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury, the Manhattan judge said. Torres said she saw in pre-sentencing materials that Neumeister was a trained pianist.
* * *

Slipped Disc has a nifty new design and an item on mis-treatment of a cello at Manchester airport:
 Was treated absolutely horrifically yesterday at Manchester airport. After being asked to open my cello case, a man in a foul mood working at security came along without warning and thumped my cello brutally on the body of the instrument for absolutely no reason, other than that he thought there was liquid inside the cello??? It wasn’t just a gentle knock (which is also unacceptable) but a proper thump. This man was an obnoxious pig who I had noticed before my turn, treating an elderly elderly couple really nastily, shouting at them aggressively to open their bags up for inspection. After he did this to the cello I was instantly enraged and screamed at him for about 5 minutes (This is not normal behaviour from me so shows how terrible the situation was!!!!!!!) . Everyone around us was staring in our direction. He never once apologised. His manager finally came along and apologised on his behalf.
* * *

And finally, from The Guardian, a review of two new releases, a new double album from one of my favorites, Igor Levit and a new album from another of my favorites, Hilary Hahn, completing her recording of the Bach music for solo violin:
Levit’s choices touch upon the spiritual, but the music is always mixed with the secular: the solemn ritual of the Good Friday Music from Wagner’s Parsifal, reimagined for piano by Liszt and rendered transcendental by Levit’s calm, spacious playing; Bach’s church melodies wrangled by the composer Busoni into a sorrowful Fantasia, a memorial to his father.
* * *

Let's have a double envoi today. First, from the new album, here is Igor Levit playing an excerpt from "Peace Piece" by Bill Evans.


And here is Hilary Hahn with the Presto from the First Violin Sonata--all of it!



Friday, October 5, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

This has been known for decades, but since Paul McCartney revealed in a 60 Minutes interview that he doesn't read or write music, the media are treating it as a big revelation. I've always been a bit puzzled by this because, frankly, it isn't that hard. I taught myself to read and write music when I wanted to include orchestral instrument parts in some songs I was writing back when I was eighteen years old. Oddly enough, one of my inspirations was, yep, songs by the Beatles. Their producer, George Martin, a trained musician, was able to provide them with notation skills when necessary. But I have often wondered what the block was. Psychological? Cultural?

* * *


* * *

The New York Times, oddly enough, has a piece containing a critique of the trend in the arts to become a "battleground of social justice."
The real-world and social-media combat we’ve been in for the past two years over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and bemoan (or endorse!) how it’s being run — have now shown up in our beefs over culture, not so much over the actual works themselves but over the laws governing that culture and the discussion around it, which artists can make what art, who can speak. We’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.
We have language that helps do the sorting. A person who insults, harasses or much, much worse is “problematic,” and certain “problematic” people, and their work, gets “canceled.” Recent cancellations include Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Roseanne Barr, Kanye West, Ian Buruma’s stewardship of The New York Review of Books, Matt Lauer, Woody Allen, Netflix’s flagrant high school satire “Insatiable” (but only figuratively since it has been renewed for a second season), the YouTube star Logan Paul, the Nation’s poetry section. People you love but who’ve misstepped are “problematic faves” — Scarlett Johansson, Dave Chappelle, Cardi B, Justin Timberlake, M.I.A. — and you don’t outright cancel so much as temporarily block them until they get their acts together. The people who know who’s who, what’s what and when’s when are “woke.” They tend not to be black, because black people are born woke; the trick for them is to stay that way.
The nomenclature is supposed to make the moral sorting expedient. The “hot or not” lists of yore have, more direly, become “O.K./Not O.K.” Individuals are not necessarily permitted a say in the cancellation — or, for that matter, in the coronation — of artists or their work. A temperature is taken and you’re advised to dress accordingly. What’s bad for some people is deemed bad for everybody, and some compliance is in order, lest you wind up problematic, too.
That leads to something farcical like the Grammys’ rumored prophylactic shunning of the popular white musician Ed Sheeran from the three biggest award categories, lest he triumph over Kendrick Lamar or Childish Gambino and cause a firestorm of upset.
I think that this is the inevitable result if you prohibit aesthetic evaluation. Without that the only way to judge art is by whether it entertains you or not, or whether it fulfills some social purpose. Art that merely entertains tends to be, well, entertainment, so that leaves social justice.

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 While we are in New York we can drop in on Alex Ross' piece on the opening of the season at the Met and the New York Philharmonic:
What made this “Aida” indelible, however, was Anita Rachvelishvili’s magisterially hell-raising performance as Amneris. The young Georgian mezzo-soprano, noted for her Carmen, has a huge, piercing voice, and she isn’t afraid to sacrifice purity of technique for the sake of intensity of expression. Not all the sounds she made were beautiful, but all had dramatic point. A sign of her charisma is that during the final tableau, as Aida and Radamès are expiring in the tomb, Amneris continues to transfix the attention: even when she isn’t singing, she dominates the stage. The Met should let her do whatever she wants: artists of this calibre are the reason opera exists.
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Ross was reasonably positive about the New York Phillies and their new conductor, but David Gelernter had a different opinion:
For years, the maniacal self-absorption of Music Director Alan Gilbert allowed the New York Philharmonic to deteriorate into a sloppy shambles and become the worst of the world’s best orchestras. This season, there is a new music director, Dutch conductor and violinist Jaap van Zweden. Van Zweden gave his opening subscription series this weekend, and the transformation was obvious: Under his baton, the orchestra is no longer sloppy. Now it is merely unmusical.
I like it when reviewers just go ahead and tell us what they think! You should go back and read Ross' comment on the premiere of the piece by Ashley Fure then compare to Gelernter's take:
The concert opened with the debut of Filament, a new work by contemporary composer Ashley Fure that sounded like a parody of late 60s experimental music. The orchestra was supplemented by three soloists in casual hipster attire on spotlit pedestals: a trumpet, a bass, and — out in the aisle — a bassoon. These were in turn supplemented by fifteen “moving voices,” singers who prowled around the audience with black plastic megaphones that resembled witches’ hats. The piece lasted 14 minutes:  roughly ten minutes of demonic possession followed by four minutes of a traffic accident in the Holland Tunnel.
Sounds, uh, exciting? He continues:
The composer’s stated goals included “to democratize proximity” and “to activate a theater for the social.” I feel compelled to note that, once the singers had finished hissing into their megaphones like a suite of deflating tires and van Zweden had turned slowly and balletically to stare at the audience as the lights were gradually dimmed to black, we were not left feeling that our proximities had been particularly democratized.
Now that's my kind of review. Not to say that I would share his opinion, I just like that he had an opinion.

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A short miscellanea today, so let's have a double-barreled envoi. For something a bit different here is Yuja Wang playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms with the Munich Philharmonic conducted by Velery Gergiev. There are two encores. Also on the program Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Glinka.


And another composer I don't talk about a lot, Mendelssohn. This is his Symphony No. 4 "Italian" with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra (who have an excellent series of videos online) conducted by Paavo Järvi.